Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Collecting Comic Books

By Simon Woodhouse

In recent years, Hollywood seems to have fallen in love with superheroes. Every summer there's a glut of superhero movies passing through the multiplex. Some of them are very good (Spider-man, X-men), and some of them are terrible (Dare Devil, Fantastic Four, Electra, etc.). Of the millions of paying customers who sit and watch Spidey defeat the villain, save the innocent bystander and get the girl, I'm sure quite a few of them don't realize he started life as a comic book character.

All of the most famous superheroes come from the comic book pages of two main publishing houses - DC and Marvel. DC (Detective Comics) started the superhero bandwagon rolling back in 1938, with Action Comics #1. This comic did surprisingly well, thanks mostly to the presence of a brand new superhero called Superman. Once DC realized they had a format that worked, more heroes appeared, the most famous of which being Batman and Wonder Woman. A year after DC started up, Timely Comics came into being. But it wasn't until 1941 that timely found a winning hero in the form of Captain America.

Following World War II, the popularity of comics dipped. The end of the 50s saw a revival though, lead by DC. In the early 60s Timely Comics became Marvel, and a writer named Stan Lee (the Godfather of modern comics) joined forces with an artist called Jack Kirby, and between them they created the Fantastic Four. This team of superheroes appeared in a more 'real world' vein. They weren't noble do-gooders like Superman, instead they addressed the issue of how difficult it was to be a superhero - an individual separated from everyone else by the way they looked and the things they could do. This approach carried on in some of Stan Lee's other famous creations - The Hulk, Spider-man, the X-men, and it put Marvel at the top of the comic book mountain.

Anyone who reads comics on a regular basis can't help but be drawn into the world of collecting. After all, many of the superhero stories carry on over several consecutive issues, making it necessary to keep all the comics in order to enjoy the whole story again and again. They're also quite an easy thing to collect, as they don't take up much room (until you get fanatical), and only need to be kept free from damp and damage. Up until the mid 1980s, comic book collecting didn't really involve much financial gain, and for the most part was the domain of the keen amateur. However, things changed around 1985, when speculators started to move in and view comic books as a potential source of investment. Publishers responded to this by saturating the market with special collector's editions. But the big money titles only made big money because they were rare, so printing ten million copies of a special edition rendered it not very special at all. The bubble burst in the early 90s, the price of collectable comic books crashed, and even the mighty Marvel filed for bankruptcy.

Since then collecting has gone back to its roots, and once again become the realm of the avid, amateur enthusiast. eBay has helped in recent years, being the perfect vehicle through which collectors can buy and sell their wares.

So how should you go about starting a collection of comic books? First and foremost it must be something you enjoy, because it's unlikely you'll ever make any money doing it. It also helps if you've got a favorite hero, as that narrows the field down and gives you a starting point. If you're looking for a comic book store, the chances are there won't be one in your town unless you live in a big city (Metropolis, Gotham, etc). Marvel.com will allow you to subscribe to twelve issues of a particular comic, but have few individual books for sale. But that's a good way to start, because you'll get a whole series involving your favorite character, and that's how comic books should be enjoyed. Newkadia.com is another good source, and they will let you buy individual books, but their site is massive so expect to spend a lot of time browsing. Most large bookstores will have a section devoted to graphic novels (a comic by another name). These tend to be entire stories told in one volume. Graphic novels had their heyday in the mid 80s, when such classics as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen first appeared. In a way, it's the graphic novel that's kept the comic book industry afloat, but for me they're not the same as collecting a whole sequential series.

Once you've got your comics, and you've read them cover-to-cover, store them in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight and laid flat. As time goes by you'll come to cherish your favorites, returning to them again and again. But we're all grown-ups now, so there's no need to read them under the bed covers and by torch light anymore.

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