Thursday, 20 October 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Thirty-Four)

Aside from a half dozen really big deals I did on individual comics, people rarely spent more than £5 on a book in my shop. You see by this time any serious collector owned a price guide and he would be looking for people who were selling under guide price rather than on it or over – some people were displaying common sense. The average collector wasn’t interested in anything that was out of his expense and comics were increasingly getting more and more expensive and this is why the back issue sections of comics shops started to become redundant and just take up space; because the price guide put a minimum value on every comicbook ever published!

The reason Jack 1 bought so many comics from me when he did was because I looked at shit comicbooks that were guided at £1.00 and thought I’d be lucky if I got 10p for them. But I did get 10p for them; because someone will buy a piece of crap for 10p than spend a £1 on it – again, common sense. But, the downside was, they are also more likely to buy shit for 10p than something good for £1.00. And that applies even today, more so in many ways. But you can walk into any independent comics shop that still has back issue sections and find over priced and unsold comics. Surely the best thing to do with any comic that is basically past its sell-by date is to sell it for the price you can get for it? Why do you never see signs saying ‘make an offer’? Because it doesn’t make sense to a comic shop owner. If he buys 100 X-Men at 50p each and he sells 75 at £1.00 each in one month, he’s made £25 profit already. In month two, he sells another five (now he has made £30 profit) but no one is interested in the rest. Does he put these 20 X-Mens in the back issue bins at retail price or less? No, he puts them in the back issue bins at 25p more than he was selling them earlier in the day; or if you are really lucky the same price. Does this make any sense to you, because it doesn’t to me? Not anymore, at least.

It wasn’t until someone spelled it out to me in black and white that once I’d sold enough to pay for whatever I’d bought, the rest is just profit – clear profit – and it doesn’t matter if you sell each comic for 1p or £100, whatever you ring in the till is profit. Mammon would be grinning with pride at the way comics dealers and store owners refuse to accept that a comic that no one wants isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

There was a time when the comics shop with the most comics was considered the biggest and the best, but nowadays most places that sell comics have them hidden away at the back of the shop and only order what they know they can sell. In fact, in the 21st Century comics and the industry has become such a cottage industry again that only the real speciality comic shops can really call themselves authentic comic shops now. Toys, T-shirts, Trading Cards, sculptures, models, clothes, jewellery, piercing and tattoo parlours and bookstore staples are now at the forefront of most comics shops. They now attract people who don’t know or like comics, so the comics have to be put far away so the regular, normal, people don’t get frightened or traumatised by the ‘fucking weirdoes with their spandex fixations’. But there are still people out there who will continue to try and start a new comics shop, in a new town, with the ideals that they will overcome and be better than all those other dreamers who tried before and failed. It is the existence of things like price guides, and even dealers’ mail order lists, that embed this stoic attitude to change into most probable failures and bankrupts.

When Duncan McAlpine re-launched Alan Austin’s UK Price Guide in the early 1990s, he took the very bold decision to ask the comics public, ‘do we really need a price guide?’ At the time there was a good debate for and against in the pages of Comics International. It could have raged for years because for everyone that felt we needed a guide, there were others who made the very good point that it would standardise the dealing industry and make it increasingly more difficult for people to get bargains and, probably most importantly, it would make the general public aware of the value of comics and dealers could no longer fleece little old ladies out of their attic stash.

Every one missed the biggest point, except me – but I missed the boat with the debate because by the time I realised what the biggest problem was the debate had moved onto something else entirely. If the price guide had been intended for dealers only it would have worked better than it did, but because it was now a bookshop feature available in all good Waterstones it meant that everyone could get a copy and see how much those old comics in the attic were worth. However, as I’ve pointed out, grading comics is a science in itself and trying to explain to a comics ignorant local that his stack of Metal Men was indeed an impressive run, but their condition is only fine and that means they’re only worth half of the maximum guide price, and that would be the dealers’ re-sell price, so the dealer could only offer the seller a much smaller percentage per comic, it would sound like the retailer was taking the piss – trying to rip the seller off. At best, the dealer would be treated with a certain amount of incredulity. With the more universal availability of the price guide that actually started to happen. The UK price guide was a great tool for the retailer, but it was an unexpected weapon for the customer and potential seller. If someone walked into your comics shop with a price guide, you might as well forget about making the sale, unless you had someone on your staff that could charm the underpants off a nun. We were lucky, that was Iain's one good point and we managed to procure many good collections because of Iain’s gift of the gab; but it always left a slightly acrid taste in the mouth, because the price guide made you feel as though you were cheating these people.

It is also very difficult to tell someone that 90% of all comics are actually worthless. People see these Cash in the Attic and Antiques Roadshow programmes and get it in their heads that if a book – an official book - says something is worth £200 why isn’t he getting £200 for it? I know people who took to using old price guides as a buying reference. The truth about comics prices is that 90% of all comics are not worth the paper they’re printed on – they are essentially worth less than the cover price. The problem, the thing that sticks in the retailer’s mind, is there is a physical product there, and history dictates that this product could be worth something some day, so like any good hoarder the retailer makes sure that all it will ever do is take up space. The man with a £200 comic thinks he should get £200 for it; the price guide says so; the man in the street struggles to comprehend the argument that it isn’t really, actually, worth £200. It is worth maybe a fifth of that because the dealer hasn’t necessarily got a buyer for it. Then we get into the ethics of buying comics; if a dealer did have a buyer for it, would he still only give a fifth of its value, therefore making more profit, or would he give the seller a better deal, make less profit, but have a quicker turnaround and a happy seller, who just might be inclined to bring other good comics in for purchase or trade?

However, if 90% of all comics are worthless, what about the other 10%? These 10% are the popular comics, old or new, they are the ones that have the most readers and are the best comics to read (usually) – what is a new potential reader going to think when he realises that X-Men back issue comics are out of his price range? There is no easy entry point for potentials here either. Little Johnny waltzes into a new comic shop; likes what he sees and it stars Wolverine; he buys a few comics every month, comes into some disposable income, looks at the back issues and discovers that unsold stock, starring Wolverine is more money than the new comics. Old, out-of-date comics are, for some strange reason, more expensive. Does it make him want to splash his cash or does it scare the shit out of him when he realises that there are 300 plus issues, all getting exponentially more expensive, as they get older?

People also believed that comics fandom somehow officially sanctioned the price guides – this was a common misconception because the people who advised or helped produce guides were either dealers or people with a vested interest in the guides. Something I forgot to mention, Duncan McAlpine, the man who resurrected the UK price guide, was a director in a large comics retailer in London, specialising in the rare and difficult to get comics (comics that incidentally began to see a dramatic rise in their values).

Commercialism had finally started to catch up to comicbooks and it seemed no one was into it without some financial reason. The publishers were now employing people with the brief to promote comics as broadly as they could – none managed to get much further than the Internet and because of the millions of hits the Internet was providing, what was the point of investing (read: spending) money elsewhere to promote comics? Actually they did have advertising budgets, but only for Wizard and a couple of the other US magazines, it was the Internet that suddenly became the focus for all the marketing and PR work – it was like comics decided that the ‘net was the only way forward and, to be fair, when you get all your fans to do your PR for you and you don’t have to pay them, how can you blame them for taking advantage of the willing fans.

The price guide also took on the responsibility of the scorecard – there were now so many ongoing, mini, maxi and prestige format series coming out, plus one-shots, annuals, specials and graphic novels, you needed to concentrate to keep track of what was happening and who was appearing where. There was a massive expansion of companies and all of them were forming on the basis of the general stupidity of the retailers.

The UK price guide only had longevity as long as the general public and the comics fan were interested in their investments, by the time the last one came out the furore had died down so much the guide effectively became redundant. In fact, the furore died so fast by the end of the ’90s most people in comics thought the speculator had disappeared and most of the dealers had downsized. If only this was the case; without a recent price guide and no one to effectively police the prices, we saw some comicbooks take massive hikes in price. What happened was the price guide was a huge contributing factor to the end of back issue sales from comics shops, but it also became an essential reference work that prevented exploitation and massive inflation – a wonderful catch-22 situation. Fortunately by the turn of the last century, because of the downsizing of the industry, everything was affected and there were twice as many dealers selling books below the guide price (by as much as 80%) – but all these guys were doing was making money from dead stock (and who were they selling a lot of this dead stock to? Other dealers who’d take it back to their shops, inflate the price, stick it in a Mylar bag and wouldn’t sell it to anyone, either!)

Madness. But how often have I insinuated that so far?

But the real madness was the simple fact that no one in comics appreciates that like any collectible not everything is worth money. I have promo material in a box in my loft that has more value to collectors than probably 50% of my personal collection. This includes promo posters, pins and standees that are, in effect, so rare they command obscene prices. But they aren’t comics.

When a retailer looks at his back issue stock he sees money. It is an illusion manufactured by years of history and conditioning and then illuminated by price guides. If you walk into a department store you see all kinds of end of range goods at ridiculously reduced prices – my wife lives for these kinds of sales because she gets stuff she’d never pay full price for, even if it is now ‘out of season’. The same principle should apply to comics shops – and some might do this, I’m not in a position to travel to every comic shop in the UK and US to find out – if a comics series is cancelled or there is no interest in a specific era then these comics should either be binned or sold at whatever price they can be sold at. If nothing else it frees up space and makes some money; at best it will stimulate readers to try something else and that could mean money in the long run and it really needs to be long term, because the comics industry has suffered for too long at the hands of short-termism.

Comics Lesson 17:

Comics people are pedants, but their pedantry like everything else is rooted in complicity and weird science. No more so than comics is the collectors’ mentality so focused. I spent many years devoted to a band called Talk Talk. I thought they were the most progressive band of the 1980s, they broke many moulds and therefore I found myself incapable of walking past anything they released without buying it. 12” and 7” singles, club remixes, dub mixes, rare and deleted singles, demo versions, you name it, if I could get it I would. I even stretched as far as live Dutch imports – I was a completest; a full-set merchant and I’d move mountains to get what I wanted. It reminded me of when I first started to read comics and when I returned to comics my experiences with Talk Talk were brought back.

Comics fans are cataloguers and compilers. They treat their comics like newborn babes and talk about them like they were almost alive. They’ll list things not just in alphabetical order, but numerical as well. There will be better quality protection for favourite comics and specific issues. They might have classic Silver Age comics slabbed – which is the newest form of impenetrable protection, which now no longer gives you the option of ever reading the damned thing again (slabbed is the comics equivalent of being frozen in amber). Alongside these mega-expensive classic comics are the cheaper reprints, also bagged and given pride of place. Some comics fans don’t even like reading their comics, some will even buy two copies of their favourites – one to read and one to keep in pristine, or as near as damn it, condition, just in case they can sell them in a few years and buy that island in the Bahamas.

For every unbelievably devoted aficionado there are others that treat their prized possession in a completely different way. Jack 3 used to remove all the advertising pages out of his comics – the way US comics are printed all the adverts are done on the same plate so you never get a plate with artwork and advertising, so the pages can be taken out without damaging the story.

However, if people do this they are devaluing their collection to worthless. An incomplete comicbook doesn’t just mean the comics story, if anything is missing it isn’t the real thing. This might sound almost the thin end of the wedge as far as the stupidity within comics and the people involved could get, but it isn’t and you know that as well as me by now. If you have a valuable antique, it is worth more if it hasn’t been restored in any way or if all the parts, even the ornamental ones are there?

Next: After the interlude... Warrior!

1 comment:

  1. "the way US comics are printed all the adverts are done on the same plate so you never get a plate with artwork and advertising, so the pages can be taken out without damaging the story."

    Oh, how I wish that were true these days. A lot of my Dynamite comics (not all) have artwork and ads on seperate pages, but almost everything from Marvel has story on one side, ads on the other.